Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tips: Night Fishing - Part 1 "The Basics"

It all started as an experiment, much like most people's transition into streamer fishing.  Night fishing is something that fascinates and engenders curiosity in most anglers.  Unknowns abound and things appear even more mysterious when shrouded in the darkness of night.

Something stirred in my mind when I first thought about standing along a river beneath a deep starlit sky, headlamp on and rod in hand.  The idea made a home in the corner of my mind, where it slowly grew in size. I can't even recall what made us first decide to try. The idea had become an elephant and, being in the middle of the room, could no longer be ignored. What was first a sliver of fear, a hint of apprehension, and an immense amount of curiosity transformed into a reverent respect for the magical, mystical, and even sacred nature of the night.  It teaches you humility and awe to be surrounded in something that feels so ancient. Sometimes it feels like I just stepped into a room full of people where I am a stranger.  Everyone is talking and as I move about the conversations stop and the occupants stare in interest.  In this case it is not people, but animals, and this is their room. They own the night and I am simply a guest. Beavers have a remarkable knack for making that idea clear.  I have slowly developed a passionate dislike, maybe even hatred for those flat tailed, buck toothed critters during the night escapades. You want a heart attack? Run up to a beaver on the river in the pitch black night, or better yet just run along the river bank focusing on something completely different than beavers. The sound is like a small asteroid shot from the heavens smashing into the river next to you. I wouldn't recommend this if you have high blood pressure, but I digress.

Despite beavers, the wonder of the world becomes new when you are forced to experience it in a different way.  We rely so heavily upon a couple key senses that we often neglect or forget about the others we posses (I think this includes the spiritual part of our being).  Needless to say, I love night fishing. I find myself wishing it would get darker sooner.  I used to dread the sun creeping down below the horizon because it used to mean the fishing opportunity sank with it. Now I yearn for the cool blanket of night because I know that it will be a feast for the senses, it will improve my angling, and it brings out monstrous lurking trout on the prowl for big meals. One other perk is that it opens up time to fish when days are filled with grown-up business, though the lack of sleep sometimes catches up to you.

Tips: Night Fishing - Part 1 "The Basics"

I am no expert and make no claim to greatness.  The intent is to share some of the key factors of night fishing, personal ideas really.  Hopefully these thoughts can give you a place to start. I wouldn't recommend reading any further if you prefer sleep over most things.  I am breaking this tips section into two posts.  The first is to give some basic gear and my own theories behind fly fishing for trout at night.  The second section will focus on mousing.

What to bring?

Headlamp - Having a good headlamp on the water at night is vital.  I prefer one that has a red light that can be turned on independently of the white lights. When doing most things, aside from hiking into the river or landing a fish, I will use the red light and face away from the water.  The idea is that the red light is not very visible for fish, and most fish at night are spooked by bright white light.  It is also a good idea to take a small LED backup light and extra batteries for the headlamp.  It's no fun hiking in the dark, especially if you are alone.  Been there... heeebie jeeebies.

Jacket - This is up to you, but even in the summers things get a bit chilly when you are standing in a river. I am usually grateful I have one, even if it is just my wading jacket.

Glasses - I have been guilty of going without safety glasses many times, but it is not wise. Flinging flies the size of small chickens + the fact that it is pitch black + your eyes are wide open and can't see something coming at them + the occasional wind = a recipe for disaster. Most Buff wearing buffoons won't be deterred by this tacky fashion statement that enhances safety. Avoiding blindness with this simple step is highly recommended.

Rod, Line, and Tippet - There isn't an end-all be-all setup for stalking trout at night.  In some cases I prefer my fast action 5wt that has good tip flex, in others I use my fast 8wt and sometimes I use my slow 8wt.  In 99% of the situations I have faced at night a floating line is the way to go.  Fish are usually looking up at night, unless you are fishing a place that is lit all the time, such as below a dam. Faster action rods help you push large/wind-resistant flies, especially when there is some wind. Slower action rods make it easier to give motion to certain patterns (think mouse) and can help compensate for premature hooksets. For the tippet, there is no reason to go small. While fish can see much better at night than most people think, they aren't leader shy. With the added risk of tangling in brush or hooking log jams, it is a good idea to have a heavy duty leader and tippet. I make my own leader/tippet for such occasions. I use about 3' of 30lb mono with a blood knot connection to a roughly 3' section of 20lb mono and then attatch that to about 3' of my tippet material (14lb Berkley Vanish Fluorocarbon). When fishing mice I cut the overall length of my leader + tippet in half, and I'll explain that in the next post.

Flies - Here you have to consider what is available to the fish, just like most anglers do during the day.  Don't overlook possibilities. Fish are aggressive at night.  Bigger fish (and small fish wanting to be big) are on the prowl for big meal ticket items.  This doesn't mean that smaller patterns won't work, or aren't sometimes the preference, but in general big begets big.  I'll get more into the theories on fish behavior in a bit. Think minnows, leeches, mice, and in some cases stoneflies (terrestrial), hoppers, hex, big parachute adams, or large caddis. I have yet to do much with the dry patterns, but I'll eventually get there. Some good patterns to have on hand in both weighted and unweighted versions: the almighty wooly bugger, peanut envy, sex dungeon, morrish mouse, or mr hankey mouse.  I would carry the streamers mostly in black, but have a couple tied in white and olive.  If you tie your own flies these are pretty easy patterns to whip up.  I have developed a couple streamers, along with a mouse pattern that I have found great success with.  I use these pretty much exclusively: the night rider, magic dragon (black night-version), the artimus (arti-mouse), and short tailed wooly buggers/mohair leeches.  I'll have tying tutorials for the personal patterns up shortly. In most cases I use the unweighted versions, but have run into situations where I was glad to have a weighted version on hand.  If you are tying your own flies, it is a good idea to tie in stinger hooks because trout are notorious for tail-nipping flies at night.  You can also tie really short tails for things like wooly buggers or leeches. If you purchase flies, simply shorten your tails.

Night Rider Streamer

Artimus (Arti-Mouse)

Miscellaneous - Some other things to consider bringing are a camera with a decent flash, snacks, and a buddy. Night fishing alone is quite the experience. Suddenly grown men have thoughts of the boogie man, ravenous bears, mountain lions, chupacabra, or maybe even a wandering zombie in search of a midnight snack. But if solo missions are your thing, then have at it, just watch out for rabid beavers.

The Theories Behind The Madness

Trout are beautiful, but not terribly complex creatures. They are a mystery to us at times, but I have grown to think their hierarchy of needs is pretty simple. Before anything, they seek self preservation. How does that translate into behavior? They spook and dart away when something appears unusual. They spend sunny days in protective lies under trees, rocks, or river banks. They often hold in deep or fast moving water. Secondly, fish seek sustenance but only as long as they feel safe first. I have yet to witness a time where self preservation came in second place. If you want to prove this idea to yourself try placing your fly in front of an actively feeding fish, then wait for it to make a move toward your offering and when the fish is close to eating make a loud noise and see if the fish sticks around for the meal before spooking. It sounds silly but most anglers know about this behavior, though they rarely think about it.

Because fish are scare-dee cats some of the best fishing happens in places where fish can move quickly and easily between protective lies and feeding lies. The zones where fish are both protected and can easily feed are called prime lies. During the day truly prime lies are difficult to access and result in lost flies, so most anglers avoid them, but for those who work to access those zones the payoff is pretty phenomenal. Night fishing changes the game though, and what was only a feeding lie during the day becomes a prime lie due to the darkness. (If the idea of fishing lies is a new concept, follow this link for a quick crash course.)

What are the implications then? For an angler it means that fish are more likely to feed when they first feel safe, and the big fish feel safest in dark or poor light. Fish actively feed at dawn, dusk, and on stormy or overcast days. I think it has a lot to do with a lessened visibility into the water. That is why streamers are so effective at those times, fish feel much less threatened and have come out of their protective lairs to feed. The lessened visibility may also boost the fish's confidence because they know other fish (minnows) are less likely to see them coming. This means they don't have to exert as much energy in the chase. The easier the ambush, the more likely the eat.

All About The Ambush

Night is the perfect venue for fish to eat other fish, mice, birds, little dogs or small children. Temperatures cool, visibility lessens, and the forage has no idea it is about to become the next Thanksgiving dinner.  Fish can see better at night than most people think, even when things are pitch black.  They also rely on scent, sound, and lateral lines.  The lateral lines help fish sense nearby motion (think how a spiderweb alerts the spider of a trapped fly from the vibration). For a fly fisherman, the sight, sound, and vibration are the focus.  I have come to believe that fish rely quite heavily on their sight to feed at night, but even fish need light to see, so how does it work?  It is important to consider what light sources we are dealing with at night.  Is there man-made structures shedding light on the water or is the main source of light coming from the sky, or maybe the moon?  I have never seen underwater lights at night, fortunately. That would freak me out so badly I think I might look for a beaver to come protect me.

For the most part the night lights come from the stars or ambient city lights reflecting on clouds. The dim light shining down on the water creates silhouettes, and profiles whatever happens to be above a wary trout. It is similar to standing in a dark hallway that has a door open with some light coming out.  Imagine someone walking out of the room.  You can't make out any of their features, but you would probably have some idea of who it was, given where you are at (ie: your own home) and your familiarity with that person's profile (not the Facebook kind). Fish do the same thing.  There aren't too many things for them to be looking for, so when they do see something with the right profile and motion they are likely to chase it down.  Understanding the silhouette idea is critical to success, in my own opinion.  Active feeders will usually be looking up.  They seem to hang out just waiting for a promising silhouette to float or swim by.  If it is a minnow or mouse they will often follow it, inspecting it, and wait for the poor morsel to reach the ambushing zone, which is often right next to the bank. When telling someone new about night fishing that is always something I stress, strip it right to the bank.  Not all, but most fish seem to hit within 1-2 feet from the bank, even if it's only 8" of water.  One of the most exciting things about night fishing is the unique takes.  Because fish are coming from below, often the takes can be explosive and loud.  If there is enough light to see the surface of the water you can often witness the splash. 

So, when I go out I look for good ambush water; slower pockets of water where a fish has time to scope out whatever it is chasing, and shallow bank water where a fish can easily chase prey down (this refers mostly to midsized to larger rivers).  Tail-outs of pools, areas where water runs over a gravel shelf and then drops into a deeper slower hole, and along structure such as trees are all good places to explore.  For stillwaters and spring creeks the areas a fish will take could really be anywhere.  Take the time to learn your water, where the fish sit during the day, and where you can hear the water blowing up at night.  I have a friend who swears the middle of the river is the best night fishing location. We rib each other about it all the time, but personally, on moving water, I have found my best luck closer to the banks.  I will often throw out to the faster water and slowly bring it in from those areas, but usually the take is an up-close-and-personal experience.

When stripping at night, I always try to remember that even though a fish can see, I still want to give that fish the best chance possible to track and eat my fly.  This results in two stripping methods when using streamers.  The first is painfully slow strips about a foot long.  I say this because I always have to remind myself to go slower, especially after I just had a violent hit and my adrenaline is pumping.  Painfully slow usually requires an unweighted fly, and I incorporate synthetic materials into my own patterns because they don't soak up water as well, which allows them to ride higher in the water column (working the silhouette).  Some people like to incorporate foam into their night patterns.  Personally, I use a foam head for my mouse pattern, but not the streamers. The second stripping technique that works really well is very short, quick, erratic strips. Make it fast, but don't move too much line. Think of them as twitches, more than strips. This gives your fly that "I've fallen and I can't get up" motion, but still allows the fish to track the fly.  Swinging the fly can also be effective, casting the line straight out in the river or just a little upstream and stripping out some extra line.  The takes on the swing, much like in the daytime, will come once your line has straightened and is moving across the river in a line.  I have also had success just letting the fly swim for a bit once the swing has ended.

One last bit of advice and a couple thoughts that may help in your night fishing endeavors.  It is a good idea to know your terrain.  Learning the water during the day will help you know how to fish it at night, and stay safe.  Use your time on the water during the day to scope out potential ambush water.  Look for areas with lots of minnows or places where mice could easily fall in.  Knowing the location helps eliminate some of the freakiness of exploring at night, and can help you spend more time in productive water.  The other thing I should mention is that I prefer darker nights to lighter nights.  I avoid the full moons most of the time because fish seem to be more active when it is darker.  Who knows, maybe they feel like an adolescent at a school dance where the teachers have the lights on.  One more thing I have noticed, and this may be different in other waters, but not all species of trout have the same nocturnal habits.  If I were to rate them from most active to least active I would say browns, cutthroat, and then rainbows, but this is the case for most of the places I fish and can be different in different waters.

Much much more could be said. Glowing indicators, times of year, and so on, but the enjoyment of this kind of thing comes through personal discovery.   Go explore, experiment, and be persistent, but if you decide to stick to the days I won't hold it against you.  The solitude afforded by night adventures is one of the reasons I keep going back. Here are some links to what other people are saying about night fishing.  Some good thoughts, and if you have anything else to add to what has been said, leave a comment, I am always looking for new ideas, thoughts, and techniques. 

G&G on artificial lighting
FFA's thoughts
OSF's thoughts
FF's thoughts

Some older trip reports

Fishplosions in the night
Night Fishing Does Not Suck (nor does chocolate pudding)
Evening Oddities
Farewell Fall
Bitter Sweet

Edit: A few days after posting this, the following brown happened.